While all about him other NFL owners moaned and groaned, Leonard Tose was losing his head. Enraged at the new Federal law prohibiting the NFL from blacking out events sold out 72 hours before game time, Tose, the president of the Philadelphia Eagles, announced last week that for this Sunday's home game against the Washington Redskins he would put on sale 376 ground-level seats with views so badly obstructed that, he confided wickedly, "I gave 50 of the tickets to charities for one game and even they didn't use them." The idea was that the obstructed seats would go unsold and the Eagles, by averting a sellout, would still have their blackout.
But Tose reckoned without one Mickey Rubin, whose ex-wife Betsy was named the other woman by Tose's wife in a well-publicized legal separation two years ago. Rubin is also Philadelphia's self-styled "Carpet King," a promotion-minded entrepreneur always looking for ways to publicize his broadlooms. He came up with a scheme of his own—what might be called Rubin's Revenge. He decided to buy every last one of Tose's obstructed seats and, having forced a blackout-lifting sellout, to take out full-page newspaper ads proclaiming "Rubin's Discount Carpeting buys out the stadium. Stay home and watch the Eagles and Redskins compliments of Rubin's."
When a Rubin emissary arrived at the box office with a blank check, Eagle officials refused to sell. "I won't be a party to some cheap publicity stunt," Tose snapped. Still, the Carpet King had pulled the rug out from under Tose, who at week's end was no longer quibbling about obstructed seats. "The Redskin game will be a sellout," the owner said dispiritedly. "It'll be on TV."
To judge from their reaction to the anti-blackout law, Tose and other NFL owners evidently feared that pro football might soon need to be covered by the endangered species bill, one of several important pieces of pending legislation that Congress pushed to one side in its haste to get at the blackout. Working its collective will just three days before the football season began, the House of Representatives approved lifting the TV blackout 336 to 37, with the Senate concurring by voice vote a scant 27 minutes later. President Nixon signed the bill the next day, then repaired to Camp David to watch his beloved Redskins beat San Diego on a telecast from Washington that the measure, now Public Law 93-107, had made possible. Said Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.), the ex-pro quarterback and one of the few to vote against the bill: "The last thing to pass this body so quickly was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution."
September 30, 1973
No sooner had Congress acted than the nation's football-watching habits began to change. The want-ad columns of the Kansas City Star blossomed with offers to sell Chiefs tickets rendered suddenly less desirable by the prospect of home TV, while a smaller number of advertisers, sensing a chance to finally get their hands on tickets, were offering to buy. The new law's 72-hour cutoff created a countdown-to-blastoff atmosphere in which nobody, not even NFL Broadcast Coordinator Bob Cochran, knew for sure what the weekly TV schedule might be. "That was TV Guide," Cochran said one day last week, wearily hanging up the phone in the league's Manhattan headquarters. "They're going crazy." In the end, the blackout was lifted for 16 games in 12 cities in the first two weeks of the season.
This meant that many NFL home games had become just that, events that now could be watched at home, within reach of well-stocked refrigerators. But some football dining habits died hard. TV offered no temptations to diehards like Jerre Maynard, a Minnesota Viking season ticket-holder who, as usual, was whooping it up before the opener against Oakland with throngs of other Minnesotans in the Metropolitan Stadium parking lot. "Who wants to have a tailgate party in a rec room?" Maynard asked. And here and there around the league some fans enjoyed the best of both worlds—instant replay and in-stadium action alike—by lugging battery-powered TV sets into stadiums.
Meanwhile, old beat-the-blackout practices fell into disuse, bringing grief to many entrepreneurs. No longer was Route 30 out of Pittsburgh clogged with Steeler fans driving to watch home-game telecasts in motels beyond the 75-mile blackout radius. At the New York Giants' first two home games the crowds that used to gather on tenement rooftops overlooking Yankee Stadium had thinned to a stubborn few. And while many neighborhood bars were suddenly packing in TV football watchers, business was off at establishments like Miami's huge The Rhodes Brothers Club, which had previously pirated Dolphin home-game telecasts from a station 120 miles distant in Fort Myers.
For last year's games the Miami club drew as many as 500 fans at a time, a free-spending tribe that crowded the bar, calling audibles for Budweisers and Bloody Marys. For this season's opening-day win against San Francisco, the club's 9-by-12-foot TV screen remained dark and its space-age antenna went unused. Fewer than 80 customers quietly watched the game on three regular color sets. "We paid for all this equipment and we also had 800 uneaten hot dogs," moaned manager John White. "I figured it cost us at least $2,500. Most people just watched the game at home. You can't blame them, either."
It was the fans' craving for home-game TV—and their prospective votes—that inspired Congress to attack the blackout on a three-year experimental basis. The bill also covers network telecasts for baseball, basketball and hockey, but the NFL was the chief target. Baseball enjoys precious few sellouts while national telecasts of the NBA and NHL are mostly game-of-the-week affairs that would require lifting blackouts of no more than one city at a time. Strictly local telecasts are not affected by the legislation. Cynics attributed the congressional action to the ascendancy of the Washington Redskins. Noting that the politicians, like nearly everybody else in Washington, had not exactly stormed the stadium gates until Vince Lombardi and George Allen came along to revive the team's fortunes, one NFL official suggested, "None of this would have happened if Bill McPeak were still coaching the Redskins."
But it was the prosperity of pro football generally, not just the on-field deeds of Allen's Over the Hill Gang, that prompted the lifting of the blackout. Congress felt that the NFL, a $145-million-a-year operation that played to 96% capacity last season, could easily withstand any ill effects of legislation that, after all, had its own built-in escape valve. "If a game sells out, the owners have their money in pocket," explained the bill's sponsor in the House, Massachusetts Democrat Torbert Macdonald, a former Harvard football captain and minor league outfielder. "If it doesn't sell out, the blackout's in effect. It's as simple as that. To use a word in ill repute, the law becomes inoperative."
Despite these assurances, it was easy to appreciate pro football's concern. The new law played havoc with hallowed NFL policy that views road-game telecasts as promotionally sound—the league insists that the networks beam every away game of all 26 teams back to the home folks—but considers home-game TV as a case of competing with your own product. Over the years, that policy helped fuel a demand so keen that season tickets are sometimes handed down in wills or contested in divorce suits. The lifting of the blackout suddenly had everybody talking about "no-shows," the term for those fickle souls who shelled out up to $15 for a single ticket only to stay away, presumably to watch the game on TV. For the 16 sellouts affected by the legislation during the season's first two weeks, the NFL counted 65,387 no-shows.
All those AWOLS meant a loss of revenue for parking and food concessions at stadiums, most of which are municipally owned. Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium also reported a disheartening 230 last-minute cancellations at its Allegheny Club, where members pay $600 a year for the privilege of watching Steeler games over Sunday dinner. Other losers include radio stations, which bought supposedly exclusive rights to home-game broadcasting only to have TV unexpectedly come along and siphon off the audience. Meanwhile, dire warnings that late-season foul weather might bring a sharp increase in no-shows were coming even from Miami Dolphin Owner Joe Robbie, who allowed that his club was vulnerable to tropical rainstorms, thus making what may be the first public admission that it rains in Miami.
The chief fear among Robbie and his fellow NFL owners was that today's no-show might become tomorrow's no-buy. Raising the specter of just such erosion, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle predicted that in the absence of TV blackouts, many sold-out games later this fall will be played before half-filled stadiums and that season ticket sales will drop sharply next year. "We mustn't let ourselves become just a TV-studio show," Rozelle said. "We need the electricity of the crowd. It isn't enough to sit in the stadium and hear just the chirp of pigeons and the crunch of peanuts."
Rozelle and the NFL owners hoped to persuade Congress to examine the effects of the blackout, even before the measure is due to be reviewed next April 15. Invoking the evils of home-game TV, they necessarily ignored the fact that thousands of Milwaukeeans have journeyed the 100 miles to Green Bay for years even though Packer home games have been televised in Milwaukee right along. There was also the inconvenient fact that there was a no-show problem with the blackout, at least in bad weather. Witness the 33,860 Kansas City ticket-holders who stayed away from a sold-out Chiefs game against Baltimore one blustery day last December. For all of 1972, the NFL's no shows totaled 624,686, or 3,427 per game. Although this year's rate is running higher, Rhode Island Democrat John Pastore, the anti-blackout champion in the Senate, cautioned last week that the figure may have been swollen by the price resistance that scalpers were known to be facing for games suddenly available on local TV.
It seemed the numbers game could be played in innumerable ways. When Kansas City turned up with 16,995 no-shows on opening day, a Chief front-office man blithely claimed that all those people had stayed away despite "ideal football weather." In fact, Kansas City had been pelted all morning by a chilling rain that let up before kickoff and then resumed in the fourth quarter. The club official spoke in the same spirit as the NFL witness who had earlier warned a congressional subcommittee that a hypothetical 10,000 no-shows at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could result in a loss at every Ram game of $6,600 in parking revenue—money, he testified, that helped subsidize the California Museum of Science and Industry. This particular argument against lifting the blackout might have been more persuasive except that the Rams, having had only a couple of advance sellouts in their 27-year history, are unlikely to suffer the inconvenience of home-game telecasts.
Also guilty of overreaching were those NFL boosters who viewed the anti-blackout legislation as an affront to free enterprise and rhetorically wondered whether Congress might next ask General Motors to give away cars after selling a certain number. The analogy ignored the fact that GM, unlike the NFL, does not turn away customers anxious to buy. Furthermore, pro football and other big-time sports have prospered by using public stadiums and taking advantage of tax depreciation laws. NFL owners have always regarded the two antitrust exemptions that Congress granted pro football as statesmanlike, but now Gerald Phipps, chairman of the board of the Denver Broncos, was crediting the same body with "the most stupid piece of legislation ever passed."
There is no doubt that Congress has greatly vexed the NFL. Radio stations, to take one example, are demanding renegotiation of NFL broadcasting rights they felt were now worth far less than the $3 million they had paid for them. The city of San Francisco, which leases Candlestick Park to the 49ers in a contract specifically prohibiting local TV, is threatening to sue. NFL clubs also face possible legal proceedings from fans who, having bought season tickets on the assumption that the games would not be shown on the tube, now feel a betrayal perhaps best expressed by the placard that somebody held aloft in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium reading, WELCOME TV FREELOADERS.
Unless they succeed in having the blackout restored, pro football's bosses will surely try to compensate for the damage done them by exacting greater tribute from the TV networks, whose ratings could be helped by their new access to home-game audiences. Rozelle also hints he might scrap his league's elaborate TV format, which provides for telecasts of all 13 weekly games, in favor of no more than four game-of-the-week shows patterned after ABC-TV's successful Monday-night extravaganza. That approach might yield less than the $45 million pro football annually receives from TV now, but it would also mean nine fewer weekly telecasts—and thus nine fewer chances of getting stuck with televised home games.
There is one last suspicion as to why the NFL owners are so aggrieved. Perhaps they had been saving home-game telecasts for the riches of some form of pay TV. Said Congressman Macdonald: "If these no-shows had been caused by pay TV, you could bet the NFL owners wouldn't be so upset."
After living with Public Law 93-107 a while longer, some fans may wind up agreeing with the owners that it was all a sorry mistake. Contrary to first impressions, the lifting of the blackout provides no additional football on TV. It merely substitutes the home team's game for a different one. Depending on the caliber of the home team, that may not always be a blessing, something that Gary Johnston, a Kansas City ski shop owner, soon realized when he stayed home from the Chiefs' televised game with Los Angeles. Not only did the bumbling Chiefs fail to lure him to the stadium, they could not even hold his attention on television. During the second half of a depressing 23-13 Kansas City loss, Johnston switched to the more exciting Oakland-Minnesota game on another channel.
At that, Johnston had it better than the Philadelphia TV watcher who dashed off a letter to Leonard Tose after watching the Eagles stumble through a 34-23 opening loss to St. Louis. "Don't be so irked about the anti-blackout law," the fan advised. "I took advantage of the free game on TV, but I promise I will never watch the Eagles again." Assuring himself a place in Tose's esteem alongside Mickey Rubin, the letter writer called for a TV blackout of Philadelphia's away games, too.